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Editorial: Solidarity against the border

To really win migrant rights we need to organise a politics that goes beyond borders, writes James O'Nions

December 17, 2012
5 min read


James O'NionsJames O'Nions is a former Red Pepper editor. He is the head of activism for Global Justice Now.


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‘Crossing borders … today is a synonym of death. All the migration paths around the world are marked by graves.’ Thus opens the call for a global day of action against racism and for the rights of migrants, refugees and displaced people on 18 December. Focusing on that most basic right, the right to life, the statement goes on to highlight the 2,000 people who died in the Mediterranean sea in 2011 alone.

As Matthew Carr points out in his essay and in his excellent new book, Fortress Europe: dispatches from a gated continent, these deaths are not an unfortunate consequence of people with choices taking unnecessary risks, but a direct result of the enforcement of the EU’s border regime against people without the luxury of choice. The deaths are flanked by a whole panoply of indignities, brutalities and forms of imprisonment imposed on migrants across Europe.

Carr goes on to argue that Europe needs migration economically, a point backed up by our immigration ‘mythbuster’. A realistic and humane migration policy would start with politicians recognising this. Yet Europe’s demand for migrant workers and its punitive treatment of actual migrants is not necessarily a contradiction. A migrant population cowed by fear of being removed is unlikely to demand better pay and conditions, although there is a better chance of it doing so if it can rely on solidarity from local populations.

While racism in general can act to divide workers against each other, immigration controls specifically function to weaken migrants’ ability to win better conditions. When the state acts against employers who are employing undocumented migrants, it may not be acting in the interest of that one employer, but it is ultimately acting in the interests of the employing class as a whole.

The Labour Party’s record in this matter has been miserable, tailing tabloid prejudice and imposing the kind of neoliberal policies that have gutted communities and made them susceptible to anti-immigrant rhetoric. The process is circular, with Labour politicians then ‘responding’ to concern over immigration that they helped create.

In this context, Ed Miliband’s approach at the Labour conference in September was not as bad as it could have been, concentrating as he did on condemning ‘exploitation’. Nevertheless, to imagine that one can effectively clamp down on the exploitation of precarious migrants while leaving vicious, racist immigration controls in place is akin to thinking the moon is made of cheese.

Where does this leave us in terms of practical politics? As Vittorio Longhi points out, migrants themselves are increasingly leading the way in Italy, France and of course in the US, where mainly Hispanic migrant workers have mobilised in their hundreds of thousands. In the UK there are also a few signs of this approach. The Latin American Workers Association has worked with unions to help cleaners fight highly exploitative conditions in cleaning companies, sometimes through ‘wildcat’ strikes.

But it has also begun to take action against random immigration status checks (producing a ‘bust card’) and against the UK Border Agency’s increasingly frequent dawn raids, organising phone trees among the Latin American community in London. The latter allow a swift response, in some cases managing to block UKBA vans from departing, and at the least preventing neighbours from being disappeared quietly.

We need a popular politics to match this self-organisation. The main refugee charities in the UK concentrate on ‘improving’ the asylum system while helping individual refugees to negotiate their way through a system stacked against them. Other organisations, such as the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants take a ‘human rights-based approach’ to immigration in general, fighting increased restrictions and anti-immigrant propaganda. But to really win migrant rights we need to organise a politics that goes beyond borders.

This might not be as unwinnable as it first seems. A YouGov poll commissioned by the campaign group No One is Illegal this year found that 54 per cent of people surveyed either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: ‘People should be free to live and work wherever they wish, and enjoy all the same rights as all other residents.’ Only 16 per cent disagreed or strongly disagreed. While framing is important in such surveys, and the ability of large numbers of people to hold contradictory views should not be underestimated, the figures do suggest the possibility of the left advancing onto the front foot for once − even if not easily.

In the context of increasing austerity, the danger of not trying to do so is apparent in the rise of Golden Dawn in Greece. But austerity has also provoked cross-border progressive responses with the first multi-country strike action in European history on 14 November. There is also a strong tradition of anti-racism in the workers’ movement that we can build on. Migrant and non-migrant workers face immiseration at the hands of both the EU and its individual member governments at the moment. Let’s build a militant workers’ movement that sees humanity in every face, European or otherwise, and fights for the freedom of everyone to move and live without fear.

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James O'NionsJames O'Nions is a former Red Pepper editor. He is the head of activism for Global Justice Now.


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